Hard truths about Project Management Soft skills.

Have you ever had this experience ?

The project from hell.

The requirements were poorly defined, but you were up against a mandated timeline, so you had to start anyway.

As the requirements emerged, things got more and more complicated, as more dependencies emerged. The project team started working weekends within a month, and the remote project manager in the USA didn't understand - because they couldn't see - how hard everyone was pushing. In order to hit the still-mandatory deadline, you and the business agreed to reduce the scope to the things you had managed to get done.

Another roller-coaster ride. And in the lessons-learned session someone said "The project was hell, but your project plans were beautiful."

What ??!!

Since when was scaffolding gold plated? If you've been around scaffolders, they use phrases like "throwing it up" and "tearing it down". The poles are grey, scratched, and often with garish coloured ends - but not for pretty-pretty, but to identify it from the other 999 scaffolders in the city.

Its all in the why.

It's not about managing a project. It's about managing change. And to quote William Bridges "Changes of any sort - even though they may be justified in economic or technological terms - finally succeed or fail on the basis of whether the people affected do things differently". A project that doesn't create a change is pointless.

So we are totally barking up the wrong tree if we focus all our effort on managing a schedule, a risk log, a change log etc. as per Prince 2 or PMP or whatever flavour of PM-icecream your organisation has chosen.

Project management is about transition management. And that involves thinking about the people involved. All of them. The designers/architects/analysts/coders/implementers/testers/users. So we need to get them on-side.

Start by getting really clear on why. By 'why' what's meant is the purpose, cause, beliefs and values. Think Heart, not Head. Why? Because, in the words of Simon Sinek "People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it.". When we start from 'why' we are talking about what really matters. And people rally behind why.

Preferences & needs.

Next we need to have some awareness of what their preferences are. Things like:

How do they like to be communicated with? (do they have a Visual or a Kinaesthetic or Auditory preference?).

What are their needs ? (Certainty? Variety? Significance? Connection? etc.) [a Tony Robbins]

How can your project enable them to have a sense of Mastery, Autonomy & Purpose? [a Martin Seligman]

I know, you're thinking "But if I adopt my communication style to match theirs, then I won't do it as well as if I use my natural style". You've missed the point. It may be clunky for you (more practise, perhaps?) but if it 'lands' better for them, which is the best approach? Right - to be clunky. [This was someones realisation on a recent workshop review session.]

I'm not saying you should bend over backwards either though. On a 'Scheduling & Cost Control' workshop (in Athens, no less, with a wonderfully Demi Roussos-like trainer) this: "If you deliver beyond the originally agreed scope, then you have failed!". Or, to put it another way - The main thing is to keep the main thing.

So, understand what your critical stakeholders really need (ask them richer, better questions) and then stand firm and resist their efforts to get you to do more. Question every request. "And what will that give you/the team/the business/the organisation/the customer ?" until they hit a limit (aka the Five Why's). Get to the heart of it.

Feedback and learning,

People need to know how they are doing - "Feedback is the breakfast of champions" said Boris Becker, apparently. And what does great feedback look like ? It enables the recipient to know how to repeat something that went well, or avoid something that didn't. That way you can hold them accountable. Use the NICER model.

Last of all, be aware of what's actually happening. I like these '4 magic questions':

  1. What was your intention,
  2. What went well,
  3. What could've gone better,
  4. What will you do differently next time.

Do it daily.

Of course, paying attention to these points will be harder than tinkering with MS Project, or faffing with endless spreadsheets and documents and wiki's and share points or whatever. But you'll be going with the grain of the people around you.

And it'll make all the difference. That is, if you really care. About them. About the project. About why.

That's all for today. If you've questions or comments, drop me a line below or get in touch.

About the Author Jonathan Rees

follow me on: